How to Find Hidden Damage on a Vehicle Before You Buy It

You don't need to be a professional mechanic to spot a piece of junk or hidden accident and flood damage

Finding Hidden Damage on a Vehicle Before You Buy It
Image: NCCC
September 21, 2018

With the increasing reliability of vehicles today, the used car market is becoming a viable alternative for consumers who want good, quality cars for a less-than-new price. But what should you look for to avoid buying someone else's problem car?

Used Cars Aren't Always Bad Cars

Like other industries, the used car industry has received a bad reputation due to shady dealers who want to take advantage of unsuspecting consumers and make a quick buck. Since there is no surefire way to weed out these bad apples, the old adage of 'buyer beware' is what everyone should live by.

In fact, a used car can very often make for a wise investment, especially if the car still has a manufacturer's warranty and has little wear. But even a used car without a warranty and a lot of miles can still be more practical that buying a new car, especially if the price is right. A lot of used cars are rentals that have reached the end of their profitable 'lifetimes,' but which still have a lot of life ahead of them. Other used cars are from end of leases or are trades when someone just isn't feeling a particular model. Others, however, are problem cars that people are glad to trade away. It's this case where you should be on the lookout for red flags.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Damages

Most people know to look at the inside and outside the car, giving the tires a useless kick for good measure. But most people don't look much further and instead just trust that if the car is for sale it must be good. But when is the last time you stuck your head under the car or even under the dash? Consider these things to check:

  • Pulling back the edge of the carpet and lifting the trunk mat can reveal hidden dirt, mud or signs of moisture exposure, which can be the first indication of a flood-damaged car. The average vehicle should not have dirt or debris under these items. And no vehicle should have any dampness in or under the carpet.
  • Looking carefully at the door jambs can reveal watermarks or additional dirt staining. We've all seen the news reports of homes that have suffered flooding. In each case, they point out the water line on the wall. You're looking for similar water lines.
  • Look under the dash and seats for hidden rust on bolts, screws or other exposed metal. With very few exceptions, there shouldn't be any rust inside a car, which could be an indication that a vehicle was flooded. There could be very minor corrosion on exposed metal in areas of high humidity, such as during North Carolina's summers if a previous owner didn't always use air conditioning, or on one particular part that was stored in high humidity prior to being installed. We have seen a bracket on a brand new undamaged car that was installed as part of an option at the port of entry. It had minor corrosion due to how it was stored prior to installation. All surrounding areas were corrosion-free.

We examined a number of vehicles recently at a used car lot in Raleigh prior to Hurricane Florence. About 80% of the vehicles on the lot showed significant rusting on the mechanical workings under the dash and on seat frames and supports. Flooded vehicles often saturate the market shortly after a natural disaster. You should avoid flooded vehicles, which often have long-term significant electronic problems.

Shiny Paint Might not be a Good thing

One crucial step is to check the paint closely, not just from a distance to make sure it's shiny. In fact, we'd be more weary of shiny paint versus dull paint. Shiny paint on an older car could indicate that it was cared for or polished prior to sale, or could indicate that it was recently painted.

Look at the door jambs, where paint is likely to be original and undamaged, and at the outside the doors. Does the paint match? Is there a color variation between the different panels on the car? Is one part of the car more shiny than others? Sometimes you can see a distinct transition line from where masking tape was applied to prevent paint overspray.

Paint overspray is a sign of body work

Paint over spray, or fine rough particles of paint on the surface, comes from paint particles loose in the air settling on nearby exposed parts. It is a certain indication that paint work, and possibly extensive body work, has been done. When paint work is done near the engine compartment, for example, overspray may be present on insulation, the underside of headlights or any other non-painted portion of the vehicle. This typically doesn't happen in more professional shops, which remove as many parts from the vehicle prior to painting, which keeps everything looking nice but also costs more.

Feel the paint, not just the large surfaces but also the parts that are tucked away. Is it rough or smooth? Rough paint typically indicates paint overspray, although some painted parts (the engine compartment, inside of fenders) are not always polished smooth from the factory. Even if the paint on the vehicle is older and fading, it should be consistent in quality, texture and appearance across the entire car. If you have any suspicions as to whether a painted surface is rough from the factory or from repainting, try your best to compare that part to another vehicle of the same type.

Where to Check:

  • underside of bumps, such as those surfaces that are parallel to the ground and sometimes don't get paint coverage if the part is painted while still installed on the car
  • the very edge of doors, which can show a paint transition line
  • door jambs, which should be glossy and smooth but sometimes get paint overspray
  • non-painted parts, such as headlights and taillights (the entire light, not just the lighted surface), insulation material (hood insulator, fender insulation), the surface of the radiator or A/C condenser as viewed through the grille, hood and trunk supports, glass, tires, and any plastic parts that meet any painted parts
  • the underside of the vehicle, which can also be checked by a third-party mechanic for evidence of frame welding or straightening
  • labels on painted parts, which are difficult mask during painting

Proper Fit and Finish Should Be Present

Fit and finish, or how well parts line up with each other, is another area to examine for hidden damage. If you look at your dash, you'll see that the gaps between the various parts are all roughly the same. If there was a gap that was, for instance, much larger on the left side versus the right side, you'd be curious to know why. Well, parts on the outside the vehicle should fit properly, too. Just remember that just because a part doesn't line up perfectly doesn't always mean it was replaced, damaged, etc. Sometimes there are some minor variances.

Where to Check:

  • Are the gaps between the doors similar, or does one have a much larger gap?
  • Is the gap on the right side of the hood between the fender similar to the other side?
  • Do headlights or taillights fit snuggly, or does one kind of stick out a bit?
  • Are the gaps between the trunk and the rear body similar?
  • Do the bumpers seem to fit flush? A lot of damage happens to bumpers. If you run your hand where the bumper meets other panels, you shouldn't feel a significant transition. If you do, compare it to the other side or to the other bumper. It may have been removed/replaced and not installed correctly.
  • Does one door stick out a little further than the others? This is something that is adjustable and may have come from the factory. But the factories are usually really good at making sure the doors fit flush.
  • Does anything look new compared to other parts? If most of the black plastic is slightly faded and there's a piece of plastic that looks newer, it may have been replaced. You should suspect repairs near this area.
  • Check windshields (and other glass) to see if it fits flush. Also look for the manufacturer's logo, which isn't present if the glass was replaced with aftermarket glass. An aftermarket windshield isn't necessarily an indication of collision damage. An aftermarket side window could be a sign of collision or theft damage.

Missing Labels on Parts

Vehicles typically have Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) stickers placed on many body parts, such as the fenders, hood, bumpers, doors, and quarter panels. These stickers are usually inconspicuous, but should be readily visible. If your vehicle is missing one, the part may have been replaced. You would likely need to know beforehand where these stickers are located, such as if you looked it up or found them on another vehicle of the same model. These stickers can't be removed and then reattached; only a dealership can replace the sticker on a new part, and it is always marked with the letter "R" to indicate replacement. VIN stickers are strictly controlled from the manufacturer and cannot be purchased by a third party. However, most of the time these stickers are not replaced as part of body work.

A title search isn't always productive, but can be useful

You should always do a title search on a used vehicle, but don't rely on it. Services like CARFAX can alert you to potential damage, but they aren't usually accurate despite guarantees. Most people won't do the legwork after purchasing a vehicle in order to uncover missing information from the report in order to claim these guarantees.

Accidents are not always listed on the title, but they sometimes are depending upon the amount of damage, the particular insurance company, and whether or not insurance was even involved. A title search service may also include places of previous vehicle registration, as well as when and where emissions inspections were performed. If the vehicle is from some distance away, such as another state, consider that it might be damaged in some way since it is easier to sell a damaged vehicle by taking it across state lines, especially into North Carolina, where reporting requirements may be different. Are emissions inspections performed at regular mileages, say ever 15,000 miles, but then suddenly get performed infrequently, such as every 2,000 miles? The vehicle might have been sitting undergoing repairs or might not have been drivable. Then again, it might have only become a weekend vehicle.

Be a little wary of rental, lease and fleet vehicles

These types of vehicles are often driven hard because the people driving them have no long-term obligation to keeping them running and in awesome shape.

A rental vehicle may have had hundreds of different drivers per year, each of whom has a different driving style and different levels of care when it comes to the vehicle. Rental vehicles often have a lot of minor cosmetic damage, as well, and typically go through a reconditioning process. You might presume that a rental vehicle may have had regular maintenance because of being owned by a company, but this isn't usually the case since a vehicle that is out for maintenance isn't making the company any money. But you can probably talk the seller down quite a bit on a rental vehicle because of these points. Another potential downside to rentals is that rental companies typically buy in large quantities and get special deals to take the first vehicles off the assembly line each year. These vehicles typically have more issues versus those built later into the year. Rental vehicles should receive a thorough inspection prior to purchase and possibly receive an extended warranty.

Fleet vehicles probably aren't as bad as rentals, but they still often have a lot of wear and go through more drivers than your typical used car. While an employee may be more likely to take care of a company's vehicle to avoid being charged for damages, a disgruntled employee might also push it to the limits.

Lease vehicles should also get a more thorough inspection, but probably aren't as bad as rental and fleet vehicles. These vehicles are typically driven by one person, who wants to keep it in good shape for when the time to return it comes along. But this person may also not be worried about the long-term reliability of the car.

Looking at the Odometer

Don't forget to check the odometer! Don't be afraid to put your head up to the thing to get a really close look. Sometimes the paperwork shows a much lower number in order to charge you more for 'better' car, so you'll definitely want to verify the number. But you also want to look for some of these warning signs:

  • Are all the numbers aligned on non-digital odometers? Anyone who has ever driven a car with on old-fashioned odometer knows the numbers to the right aren't lined up, but the numbers to the left should be aligned. A vehicle reading "051734" that has the "0" out of place may have been rolled back from "151734."
  • Are there any asterisks or codes by the numbers on digital odometers, such as *** or E? This indicates a problem that could be a simple malfunction or a sign or tampering. A dealership may even be able to confirm the digital mileage since many vehicles now store the true mileage in other computers besides the odometer. There might also be other indications of true mileage, such as the transmission computer, which might indicate that the vehicle has zero mileage left on the life of its 100,000 mile transmission fluid. This would have to be retrieved by the dealer using a special tool.
  • Does the odometer read 999999? While it could be a malfunction, it's a definite sign that the odometer may have been rolled back unsuccessfully.
  • Does the mileage match the vehicle condition? A vehicle with 20,000 miles shouldn't look like it has been been driven 120,000 miles.

A "Quick Fix" Bottle can cover up problems until you buy the car

Sometimes a major engine problem can be covered up with a bottle or two of engine additives. If the engine is a bit noisy because of improper maintenance or leaks, the oil can be thickened to quiet the sound and to temporarily seal leaks. It doesn't solve anything, and you can never fix problems with a bottle of snake oil, but it can definitely hide problems or even create new ones.

You should always check any dipsticks, caps, and fluid reservoirs.

When you wipe the dipstick to check the fluid level, note the condition of the dipstick itself. It should be mostly clean and a 'metal' color. If it is significantly stained or has deposits, it could be an indication the previous owner didn't change the oil often enough.

Does the oil look thick? Is it dark black or does it look like new oil? Is it properly filled? While there is no way to verify if the vehicle has had regular oil changes or if the vehicle was regularly driven with the proper oil level, you can see where it is now. Used car dealers don't typically expect you to check the oil level prior to buying the car. Many used car dealers simply make the car look pretty since doing other maintenance cuts into the bottom line.

Is the oil, transmission fluid, or engine coolant 'milky' or 'chunky?' Is there is any 'milky' or 'chunky' residue in the engine coolant reservoir or on the engine oil cap? Is the transmission fluid pink or like strawberry milk? If you see any of these signs, do NOT buy the car under any circumstances.

A lot of car dealers clean the engine compartments prior to placing a vehicle for sale. While a clean engine compartment looks nice, it might also be a sign the dealer is trying to hide something. Take the car for a long ride and let it run for a while. There shouldn't be any leaks after this time.

Salvaged Vehicles might be Bad, But Could also be a good deal

Many states don't require dealers to disclose if a vehicle is salvaged. You can use a title check service to investigate the vehicle history, but even this search might yield inaccurate results. A vehicle might be declared salvaged in one state and then receives a clean title in North Carolina. So you might be buying a vehicle that has had significant repairs or flood damage.

A salvaged vehicle isn't necessarily unsafe to drive. It just means that the cost to repair it after a crash was not worth it to the insurance company. A vehicle worth $500 with $1,000 of damages might be declared a total loss by the insurance company since it can 'buy' the vehicle from the owner for the vehicle's value, not damages. $1,000 of damage in this case might simply involving getting a new bumper. But on the flip side, a vehicle worth $9,000 with $10,000 of damages could indicate a serious collision. Investigation of any salvage vehicle is critical as there might be hidden damage. In this case, the vehicle might have been flooded and the previous owner opted to keep the vehicle for a cash payment, let's the car dry out, then gets it back on the market.

Always be suspicious if a vehicle has a clean title in North Carolina but a search shows a salvage title somewhere else.

Extended Warranties

Finally, avoid extended warranties in general. They cost too much and are often too limited. Usually, the cost to repair something outweighs the cost of the extended warranty, especially if the warranty is financed. Of course, only you can make the determination if the warranty is worth it to you. Besides, a warranty won't help a vehicle that has damage as warranties expressly exclude it. Some warranties can even be voided if the servicing shop finds evidence of certain damage, such as flooding.